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City approves lead water loans program

Interest-free loans of up to $3,000 will be offered to encourage homeowners to replace private lead water service connections
The City of Thunder Bay estimates 8,700 homes in the city still have lead water service connections. (iStock)

THUNDER BAY – The City of Thunder Bay has approved a new tool it hopes will accelerate the removal of lead from the city’s drinking water. A new interest-free loans program approved by city council Monday aims to encourage homeowners to replace lead water pipes on private property.

The city estimates 8,700 Thunder Bay homes still have lead connections, which were common prior to the 1950s. At least 1,000 of those are estimated to exceed provincial guidelines of 10 micrograms of lead per litre of water. That figure could increase significantly after the city discontinued its sodium hydroxide program over fears it was causing pinhole leaks in water pipes.

Exposure to the metal is particularly dangerous for children, and can affect brain and nervous system development, among other health impacts.

The new private lead water service replacement program will provide interest-free loans of up to $3,000 to cover costs of replacing connections on private property. The city estimates the work typically costs from $2,000 to $4,000.

The loans will be repaid monthly over five-year terms, with a ten-year option for low-income individuals.

The program is expected to support over 300 loans in 2020, after Coun. Andrew Foulds convinced his council colleagues to double its proposed funding to $100,000. That cost represents lost interest revenue for the city, as well as program administration costs.

Approvals for the program will be granted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those who already undertook work earlier in 2020 will be eligible.

A report from city administration pointed to other Ontario cities that offer similar programs, including Brantford, Guelph, Hamilton, London, and Ottawa – several of which also offer grants. It’s an option Foulds said may be necessary if loans don’t prove an adequate incentive.

Coun. Brian Hamilton suggested homeowners have their water tested for lead levels before undertaking replacement. The city is set to resume offering in-home lead water testing shortly, after pausing the program over COVID-19 concerns.

One stumbling block to the program’s success could be the reluctance of landlords to foot the bill for replacements on rental properties, councillors warned. Coun. Brian McKinnon said he’d heard concerns from several renters about the issue, and speculated the city might have to take more aggressive steps to address it.

Administration will report back to city council after two years on the success of the program, while staff will also inform council if the program becomes oversubscribed and runs out of funding.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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